The Irish Wolfhound is the largest breed of dog in the world. Well socialized, he exudes such calm and friendliness that no one suspects his bloodthirsty past as a living weapon of war in medieval Ireland. This breed is something for experienced dog owners, who can give the impressively strong dog a constructive education and also offer him the necessary space.
The name Irish Wolfhound is much more recent in historical records than the breed itself. As early as the time when the Romans were in Britain, the consul Aurelius wrote to his brother Flavius in 391 AD that the seven Irish Wolfhounds he was giving as gifts received, were marveled at all over Rome. In early Irish legal writing, the Cú (the Gaelic name) is mentioned a lot as well as in national literature of the 5th century and in old Irish sagas of the 6th – 9th centuries.
As farm dogs they guarded the property and the cattle herds, as hunting dogs they kept deer, wild boars and wolves – hence the name wolfhound. The Irish Wolfhound, valued for its ferocity and bravery in battle, was also used as a war dog. His one task was to pull the opponents from the horses and carts. Because of its high esteem, Irish law only allowed kings and nobles to own this breed. The number of animals was based on social position, so that lower-ranking aristocrats were allowed to keep two dogs, in contrast to the folk hero Finn MacCumhaill, who owned 500 dogs.
The Irish Wolfhound was a popular gift between rulers and other important people. Often they were decorated with valuable collars made of precious metal and bloody battles were fought for possession of such an animal. There is one anecdote about an Irish Wolfhound, which King John of England sent to the Prince of Wales, Llewellyn, in 1210. The dog’s name was Gelert and Llewellyn loved him more than anything. One day Llewellyn went hunting and entrusted Gelert with guarding his young son while he was away. When he returned he found the crib overturned and Gelert covered in blood. Crazy with grief, he beat Gelert, but as the faithful dog was dying, Llewellyn heard his son’s scream. He kept searching and found the child alive next to the body of a wolf that Gelert had killed. Llewellyn mourns his dog forever and erected a tomb in honor of Gelert that can still be visited today in Caernarvon, Wales.
Despite its fame, the number of Irish Wolfhounds has steadily declined over the years. The reason for this was the invention of the firearms with which the elk, the bear and the wolf were hunted to extinction in Ireland. Irish Wolfhounds were only kept as ornamental dogs by a few families and they were rarely seen at work. The breed would likely have disappeared today if Major HD Richardson hadn’t stood up for them. In the mid-18th century, Richardson argued in his book that the Irish Wolfhound and the Highland Deerhound were the same breed. From 1842 – 1873 he dedicated himself to the breeding of the Irish Wolfhound, with the breeding program based on the large and bulky Glengarry Deerhound. Another proponent of the breed was the Scot Captain Graham, who used Glengarry Deerhounds, Borzoi, and a Tibetan mastiff to reinvigorate the Irish Wolfhound breed. He also used Irish Wolfhounds that were crossed with Great Danes, including a Harlequin Great Dane. Graham founded the first Irish Wolfhound Club in 1885 and it was 40 years before England’s Kennel Club recognized the breed in 1925. The first Irish Wolfhound registered in the American Kennel Club was Ailbe in 1897 and the Irish Wolfhound Club of America was founded in 1927. Today the Irish Wolfhound ranks 77th among the 155 recognized breeds of the AKC.
The Irish Wolfhound wears its head, which is not too long and not too broadly proportioned, and its strong neck mostly erect. Its relatively small rose ears resemble a related breed, the greyhound, in terms of how they are carried. Dark eyes look friendly, almost mischievous under the bushy brows. The long, tapered muzzle ideally encloses a scissor bite, a pincer bite is also allowed. The elongated, strong build has a broad, deep chest, a well-tucked belly and slightly arched loins. The Irish Wolfhound has a long, well-haired tail, slightly curved. Its well-muscled legs lead to round paws with curved and very strong claws. The coat is hard and wiry all over the body, and under the jaw it becomes a beard. Permitted colors are gray, red, black, brindle, fawn brown and pure white, besides all other shades of the Deerhound are just as standard. The minimum requirements for breeding approved males are 79 cm shoulder height at 54.5 kg and for bitches 71 cm shoulder height at 40.5 kg. Wölfi from Unna, Germany’s largest Irish Wolfhound, is 1.14 cm high and has a total length from nose to tail of 2.20 m.
Intelligent and gentle, the Irish Wolfhound has a strong desire for human company. He treats his family calmly and with dignity, and is also extremely friendly towards strangers. Since he is quite sensitive, an educational principle of positive reinforcement with lots of praise and treats works best. Harsh words, physical punishment or stupid attempts at dressage, on the other hand, arouse displeasure and even if there is no consistency, it will later be difficult to tame an untrained dog of his stature. Since the Irish Wolfhound is very good-natured when socialized well, a job as a guard dog is less of an option, despite great attention to its surroundings. However, if a person with bad intentions really approaches, the Irish Wolfhound will deter the intruder with its enormous size and a short spurt in its direction. Conversely, future wolfdog owners should think twice about the transport issue. The dog does not fit into a small car and public transport (even if it goes to the vet) is hardly accepted. The breed is rather unsuitable for keeping in an apartment and keeping it outside is not good for it either. A house with a large, dog-friendly garden, where he can follow his thirst for action and dig holes deep into craters, is ideal. Frequent trips to the terrain, where he can run to his heart’s content, or dog races (coursing) in a club are also very beneficial to his greyhound nature. The Irish Wolfshound is best kept together with other pets as a puppy so that its hunting instinct is steered in the desired direction.
The Irish Wolfhound’s health is not as robust as its imposing looks might suggest. Because the breed is so calm and serene, keepers sometimes only realize late when something is wrong. Diet has a decisive effect in the first two years of life. High-quality feed for giant breeds is the best precaution for healthy, moderate growth. Otherwise, malformations of the skeleton in the growth phase (osteochondrosis), bone cancer and joint problems are clearly favored. In order to avoid unnecessary and incorrect strain, it is advisable to buy food bowls in a height-adjustable holder. The dog should be allowed a rest after the meal, because like any large breed with a deep chest, the Irish Wolfhound has a tendency to twist the stomach, a condition which leads to death without emergency surgery as soon as possible. Although the Irish Wolfhound is as big as a pony, small children are not allowed to ride on it.
The Irish Wolfhound at a glance
Origin: Ireland Alternative names: Irish Wolfhound FCI Standard No. 160, Group 10, Section 2: Wire-haired Greyhounds Size: the largest breed in the world Withers height: male 79 – 86 cm, female from 71 cm Weight: male from 54.5 kg, female from 40.5 kgHair coat: longer wire hairFur color: black, white, gray, brindle, fawn or any other color of the DeerhoundEyes: dark brownEars: small rose earsBody type: long back, muscular, elegant overall appearanceUsage: Hunting dog, companion dogCharacter: gentle, good-natured, hunting instinct comes from outdoors Bone cancer, osteochondrosis Life expectancy: 5 – 10 years
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